Technology

A Zillow moment

The Seattle juggernaut is on its heels -- for now

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Spencer Rascoff/Zillow.com

Spencer Rascoff – CEO, Zillow

Tuesday at 5 p.m. Eastern time, Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff and CFO Chad Cohen will be in the hot seat. How hot will depend on the news they deliver on their first-quarter financial earnings webcast.

This is an important call for Zillow. On April 14, company executives announced they were missing some of their numbers. To explain it, they picked at Trulia, even though Zillow had nine months to get under the hood to detect any problems. It seemed like blaming a newly adopted child for the family budget woes.

The company’s announcement in April was aimed at resetting Wall Street expectations. On Tuesday, through the parsing and the spinning, we will learn more. Zillow says it is consumer-focused — but it is a publicly traded company, so its fiduciary duty is to its investors. So far, Zillow has rewarded them handsomely, and despite a horde of stock shorters, investors generally believe in both the story and the business.

But the once unstoppable real estate juggernaut is on its heels lately — confronted by a series of events including salacious employment lawsuits; whistleblower charges about shenanigans with agent listing data; missteps getting listings coverage after the ListHub debacle; fierce competition; and the ugly lawsuit around the hiring of Errol Samuelson. None of this undermines Zillow’s core value proposition, business model or contribution to consumers and the industry, but the Seattle firm is up against some challenges, many of its own making.

I asked a company executive who squares off with the 10-year-old Seattle firm, “What are you are going to do about Zillow?”

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“Nothing. They will do it to themselves,” he retorted.

Really? At the time, I thought the Seattle gang was on an Amazon-like path to unbeatable greatness. (I will never live down my story about the Zillow announcement to acquire Trulia last year in which I wrote, “This is checkmate. Soon, Zillow will control the chessboard, like Amazon does the publishing industry.”)

But as the Zillow story plays out and the competition sharpens, hubris no longer works. A company exec recently asked me, “How are we doing?”

I am not sure I was the right guy to ask, but it indicated they were humbled by the events of the last few months.

Was Zillow trying to do too much? Between gobbling up Trulia, moving slowly (until under fire) to shore up its listing database, suiting up for formidable new competition, and launching a slew of new products, initiatives, smaller acquisitions and partnerships, the company has a lot on its plate.

The land-grab theory of hyper company growth can work, but that strategy can lead to dumb and even fatal mistakes. The Homestore debacle 15 years ago is a sordid tale of how that can play out.

zillowtalkRascoff even released a book during this tumultuous period. I get the allure of being a best-selling author, but that may not be the right priority when trying to gobble up a $3.5 billion competitor, even for the guy who helped build a $5 billion game-changing company.

Zillow’s earnings this year of $80 million to $85 million are nothing to sneeze at, but faced with a cunning competitor, getting the Trulia deal right should be the company’s top priority, right?

The move by the new Move leadership to dump Trulia and Zillow from ListHub was quick and showed clear evidence that tougher, bolder leadership was in charge at realtor.com. And the ongoing lawsuit over Errol Samuelson has escalated to a new level of legal kickboxing. Clearly, the executives at News Corp. know these blood sports well and are landing blows. Something the previous, more passive management team at realtor.com team didn’t have the stomach for.

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch -Executive Chairman, News Corp.

Plus, realtor.com has picked up a little bit of share in the new Web traffic reports. Nothing significant, but enough to think that Move may finally be getting its act together.

Let us not forget: Zillow remains the undisputed leader when it comes to consumer awareness, Web traffic and product innovation. Unlike Zillow, Move had 15 years of missteps that put it not on its heels, but on its back — until Rupert Murdoch moved in.

None of this may be important as both sides plot their next moves. Maybe another big deal is being cooked up. Maybe Google will step in and acquire one of them. I doubt it, but this fascinating cast of online real estate characters are putting on quite the show.

Listen on Tuesday to get the scoop yourself. Full disclosure: I have never built a $5 billion company or written a best-selling book.

The live webcast of the conference call will be available on the investor relations section of Zillow Group Inc.’s website at http://investors.zillowgroup.com/events.cfm. The call may also be accessed via phone at 877-643-7152 toll-free domestically and at 443-863-7921 internationally, with conference ID# 18765839.

Email Brad Inman.